Reduce the noise
The best way to protect yourself from noise-induced hearing loss is to stay away from noisy environments. But sometimes that’s not possible, particularly for those of us that work in noisy environments. That’s why hearing protection is so important.
Make a conscious effort to protect your hearing in noisy situations. This applies to both self-induced noise (such as listening to loud music with headphones, mowing the lawn, or going to rock concerts) and unavoidable ambient noise, especially in the workplace.
Continual strain on our hearing from exposure to high sound levels is likely to eventually lead to hearing loss.
We're exposed to constant noise
Our day-to-day lives are filled with non-stop background noise such as road traffic, voices and background music. It’s never really quiet – and for many of us, not even at night.
Yet our hearing is not created for this kind of stress. It evolved for life outdoors, where its tremendous sensitivity enabled our ancestors to survive by helping them hunt and be alert to approaching dangers at any time. It also enabled them to communicate with other people. And in between, there was often periods of quietness or complete silence, and their hearing was able to recover.
Things are very different today: The noise levels of our immediate surroundings are a constant input to our ears.
How does hearing loss happen?
Sound waves are converted into nerve impulses with the help of sensory cells in the cochlea of our inner ear. If these fine hairs are set in motion by sound waves, they convert the movement into electrical impulses. Each sensory cell is linked to a nerve which is connected to the auditory centre of the brain. The thick bundle of all these nerve fibres is known as the auditory nerve.
If you picture the hair cells as a kind of cornfield, then normal noises are comparable with slight gusts of wind blowing over the field and making the ears of corn gently wave back and forth. The louder the sounds, the stronger the wind, and the more the ears become bent.
If extremely strong sound waves enter our ears, it’s like a storm sweeping over the cornfield. First, this stress wears out the sensory cells in the lower cochlear spiral of the inner ear. From then on, all sounds suddenly seem dull.
The good news is that in this phase, the sensory cells are not yet permanently damaged and can fully recover if you take a long enough break from noise (more than 14 hours), allowing the hairs to straighten up again.
However, if a sufficient break is not maintained, the sensory cells suffer permanent damage or even die from metabolic depletion: The hairs bend and remain horizontal. The problem with this is that dead sensory cells cannot be regenerated.
Once noise-induced hearing loss has developed, it cannot be cured. And that’s not all: noise-induced hearing loss often goes hand-in-hand with tinnitus.
Noise-induced hearing loss
Anyone who is often exposed to loud noises at work or in their private life, for long periods of time without wearing protection, has a high risk of developing noise-induced hearing loss.
This condition first affects a person’s perception of higher, then middle, and finally lower tones. This results in an abnormally large difference between the listening distances for conversations in normal speech or when whispering.
Noise at work: Do I need hearing protection?
The daily noise exposure level is the average noise exposure level over an eight-hour working day. It includes all sound events occurring at the workplace, and must not exceed a specific maximum value.
Under Australian Work Health and Safety Regulations, the exposure standard for noise involves two measures:
Over an eight-hour shift a worker can’t be exposed to more than 85 decibels (dB).
A worker can’t be exposed to a noise level above 140 dB.
This means that if you’re exposed to sound levels of 85 dB or more during work, you must wear ear protection.
Incidentally, the pain threshold – the sound pressure level at which noise is painful- is 125 dB for most people. However, even a sustained noise level of 75 dB (equivalent to, for instance, a passing motorbike or train) can strain our hearing, although we don’t usually find this volume unpleasant.
What does the physical quantity dB actually stand for?
dB is the abbreviation for decibel. It is not a physical quantity such as meters or grams, but instead allows such quantities, in particular sound pressure, to be scaled. When expressed in dB, a 20 dB increase represents a tenfold increase in sound pressure.
When thinking about decibels, it’s especially important to remember that an increase in the sound level by 10 dB feels twice as loud to our hearing.
Strategies for protecting our hearing
Turn it down
Whether you’re listening to the radio, watching TV or playing music with headphones or speakers, make sure you don’t go over a reasonable volume. If in doubt, it’s better to turn it down.
Keep away from the source
Always stay as far away as possible from the noise source: for example, a loud machine or speakers in a bar. If it gets too loud, move even further away, even if you have to leave the room.
Reduce sources of noise
Simultaneous noises add up. Cut down on parallel noise sources, such as different music playing at the same time, loud conversations and running electrical appliances. It’s a strain for our ears to hear this all at once.
Wear hearing protection
Be consistent: whenever you’re doing loud work such as mowing the lawn, sawing or drilling, always use earplugs or other suitable hearing protection.
It's better to use quiet appliances
This applies to drills, grinders and washing machines, as well as dishwashers and fridges. Look out for the decibel rating when purchasing electrical appliances. The lower the rating, the quieter the appliance, so the better it is for your ears.
Protect your ears
This healthy reflex in children can also be used by adults: Put your fingers in your ears if you are exposed to acute noise levels, or press your palms firmly against your ears, and move away from the source of noise.
Would you like to know how your hearing is?
We’re happy to help! Give us a call on 1300 353 186
Our initial hearing check is free of charge and obligation-free
How does hearing protection work?
Whether it’s earplugs, earmuffs, or capsule ear protection (which look like headphones), hearing protection always has one purpose: to reduce harmful sound levels to a safe level. In the workplace, your employer is responsible for adopting appropriate measures as part of standard occupational work and safety.
Hearing protection is essentially made of a material which is a poor noise conductor. If sound waves come into contact with this material, they can pass through it only with considerable energy loss. In this way, the volume is reduced considerably.
The insulation value of individual hearing protection ranges from 25 to 40 dB. The level of insulation is dependent on the frequency, material and anatomy. To achieve higher insulation values, an ear protection system can be combined with capsule ear protection. In extremely noisy environments (measuring over 125 dB, such as when working on the tarmac at an airport), complete soundproof suits are sometimes even used. These prevent the body from transmitting noise to the ears through the skeleton.
No matter how they’re designed, hearing protection systems cannot be expected to give complete silence. This is intentional, so that employees can still hear important background noises such as voices (speech comprehension) or warning signals if needed.
For specific applications, there are also capsule ear protection models, which simultaneously provide effective protection from noise while enabling communication (such as headphones in a helicopter) by using a microphone and electronic components. This category also includes electronic noise-canceling headphones, which almost completely cancel outside noise in the earphones by means of phase shifting. You can find out more about this topic in the Noise-cancelling section below.
The key hearing protection categories
Ear protection capsules or capsule ear protection (ear muffs with a frame)
This headphone-type hearing protector is available in various designs. Some can be worn directly on the head, while others are designed to be fitted to a protective helmet. They usually fold up and are quick to put on, which is why they’re also well suited for short-term use. Depending on the design, they’re also suitable for high noise levels.
Earplug variant 1: Foam earplugs
These are the classic yellow earplugs that are made of expanding foam and are rolled up with your fingers into narrow cylinders before use. Once inserted into the auditory canal, they expand within about 30 seconds and adapt to the shape of the canal. These inexpensive earplugs are generally single use.
Earplug variant 2: Plastic earplugs
Thanks to their hand grips and carry cord, these earplugs can be used and taken out much more quickly than their foam equivalents. This makes them ideal for work environments with alternating loud and quiet phases. Plastic earplugs are also available as so-called frame earplugs.
Earplug variant 3: Ear moulds
Individually made for each wearer, this modern form of hearing protection offers maximum wearing comfort. The other major advantage of ear moulds is that different sound filters can be selected depending on the needs of the wearer. Take the following examples:
- Listening to music: This filter enables a full sound experience while protecting against damage. Ideal for party and concertgoers as well as musicians and DJs.
- Driving: This filter protects motorcyclists from harmful engine noise.
- Watersports: This filter keeps the ear canals of swimmers’ and water sports enthusiasts’ dry, protecting against ear infections.
- Sleeping or relaxing: This version helps you sleep well and concentrate on reading or working, especially when travelling.
- Leisure activities: Whether at home, at a bar, or when travelling, this ear protection is designed for active leisure activities.
This is the cheapest variant for single use. To achieve sufficient insulation and to stop cotton fibres remaining in the ear canal, each cotton earplug is surrounded by a thin film.
Warning: Making your own ear plugs is not advisable
Home-made earplugs made of cotton wool, sealant, rubber or other materials cannot provide sufficient hearing protection. They can in fact pose an additional risk, as they give you a false sense of security, and because they’re unhygienic they can lead to damage in the ear canal.
What should you do if no suitable hearing protection is available?
The best solution if you’re exposed to sudden noise, or are quickly passing through a noisy area, is to block your ears with your fingers or hold your hands over your ears.
Take steps to protect your hearing
Learn more about hearing protection or individual hearing protection solutions in the form of tailor-made ear moulds.
Give us a call or book an appointment on 1300 353 186.
Noise-cancelling: Active noise control
Headphones with noise-cancelling technology – which eliminate background noise at the touch of a button – have become increasingly popular. They use an electronic-acoustic feature known as active noise control (ANC).
The noise-cancelling feature works when the headphone registers the background noise with the aid of a microphone and eliminates it with artificially generated “counter-noise” in the earpiece. The generated sound is the exact opposite of the background noise in its phase (phase-shifted), so the sound waves cancel each other out. An artificial silence is therefore created with the help of electronics in the soundproofed earpieces of the noise-cancelling headphones.
Noise-cancelling headphones have become very popular to reduce or eliminate background noise when you’re listening to music or an audiobook for example. They can also help you concentrate on work or study, while blocking out unwanted background noise.
Some athletes even use noise-cancelling headphones instead of normal Bluetooth headphones to concentrate before competitions.
When noise-cancelling is enabled, Bluetooth technology also enables you to receive and make phone calls without affecting quality.
What should you look for when buying noise-cancelling headphones?
Noise-cancelling headphones are offered by most headphone manufacturers and are available as either wireless or Bluetooth headphones. Noise reduction function and sound quality are the two most important considerations in comparing models and selecting a headset suited to your needs
If your priority is effective noise-cancelling as opposed to sound quality, with noise reduction being just a nice additional effect, other devices are recommended.